Schumer presses forward with Ukraine Plan B as GOP leaders reel

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer plans to push ahead with a new foreign aid plan Wednesday, putting new pressure on the two top Republicans on Capitol Hill — both of whom are facing fresh questions about their leadership after a series of high-profile flops this week.

Schumer's move comes after a Senate border security plan, negotiated over the course of months in a bid to unlock aid to Ukraine and Israel, collapsed just days after its release. According to a Senate Democratic aide briefed on his plans, Schumer will call a vote to open debate on a standalone aid bill if a procedural vote on the border plan fails as expected Wednesday.

The move threatens to again expose a divide inside the GOP between traditionalist defense hawks who firmly support Ukraine aid and a more isolationist wing aligned with former President Donald Trump.

Caught in the middle are Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who are both reeling from embarrassing setbacks.

House Republicans on Tuesday failed to muster the necessary votes for the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas or a $17.6 billion aid package for Israel, once again putting a spotlight on Johnson’s inability to shepherd his slim majority.

Meanwhile, the border deal's collapse in the Senate has McConnell's critics — and, privately, even some of his allies — casting new doubt on the veteran leader’s once formidable ability to corral his diverse conference.

A lion in winter?

An outspoken proponent of Ukraine aid, McConnell embraced a push last year to link tough new border policies to the foreign-aid supplemental, thus buying conservative support. He deputized conservative Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) to cut a deal.

But the deal Lankford cinched was torn to tatters in the span of 48 hours thanks to opposition from Trump, McConnell’s political nemesis. Most GOP senators — including some of McConnell’s closest allies — are expected to vote today against even debating it.

If it fails as expected, McConnell will be faced with a new challenge: Schumer's plan is to quickly move to launch debate on a foreign aid bill that omits the border agreement.

McConnell has indicated he is likely to back such a package, viewing it as essential to backstop the Ukrainians in their fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s force. But it is in serious question whether he can manage — or will even try — to bring the rest of his conference along.

The backdrop is stark: McConnell’s longtime critics have been emboldened by the border deal's collapse. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) called it a “betrayal” and is demanding new leadership. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) posted a meme mocking McConnell, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has explicitly called for McConnell to step down.

“It’s not James Lankford’s fault. It’s Mitch McConnell’s fault,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said. Added Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.): “These were real tactical errors that he's made — and, you know, I think his public opinion polls show it.”

McConnell fired back in an exclusive interview with POLITICO. He argues that his critics “had their shot” to vote him out as leader a year ago and failed. He blamed them for the party’s confounding, boomeranging strategy over the border. And he argued that solving the problems they identified requires working with Democrats.

“The reason we’ve been talking about the border is because they wanted to, the persistent critics,” McConnell said. “You can’t pass a bill without dealing with a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate.”

McConnell, of course, has outflanked and outlasted his critics for years, and he retains the confidence of most Senate Republicans, who can’t oust him mid-term even if they want to.

Still, one senior GOP aide who admires the longtime leader said the crescendo in whispers is unmistakable: “Can Mitch continue doing this?”

“He’s been an incredibly consequential and strategic leader, always thinking about where the conference needs to be and looking around the corners,” this person said. “None of that’s happening. It’s not the same.”

The collapse of the border deal and the reaction from his critics on the MAGA right have made obvious that there is no tenable way for McConnell to remain leader if Trump is elected. And even with Trump as GOP nominee, it will be exceedingly difficult.

“That’s oil and water,” Johnson said. “That wouldn’t work very well.”

Johnson's bad day

Johnson, meanwhile, pushed forward Tuesday with the impeachment vote in the face of numerous red flags, expressing confidence throughout the day yesterday that he had the votes to oust Mayorkas.

But those assurances evaporated as Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) — a respected former Marine officer and committee chair — made good on threats to oppose the articles, joining Reps. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) and Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), who have long argued that policy differences aren’t grounds for impeachment.

Johnson and the rest of the GOP leadership team, meanwhile, didn’t have a firm grasp on their whip count. They appeared to assume that Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) — who’d been in the ER for surgery yesterday — wouldn’t show. But in a dramatic moment, he was wheeled into the chamber wearing scrubs to cast the decisive vote.

That spurred a last-gasp effort to strongarm Gallagher into changing his vote, with fellow Republicans warning the Wisconsin Republican of serious blowback from the base. It didn’t work.

Tuesday's vote isn’t the end of the Mayorkas impeachment saga: Republicans say they’ll try again when they have full attendance. Even so, it was a high-profile setback for the new speaker that was compounded by the decision to immediately press forward with a vote on the Israel aid bill, which failed to garner the necessary two-thirds margin under suspension of the rules, 250-180.

Holding a failed vote in this case might have been politically defensible, to highlight Democrats’ opposition to the Israel funding. But that message got lost amid the botched impeachment narrative.

The problems for Johnson might only snowball from here. The Mayorkas vote is casting serious doubt on any effort to impeach President Joe Biden, which has been a top priority for the House GOP's MAGA wing. And, in about two weeks, Johnson will have to start muscling government funding bills across the floor — which is sure to exacerbate tensions with right-wingers.

Johnson, who emerged as speaker after the hard right revolted against predecessor Kevin McCarthy, has benefited in his first three months on the job from the sense that there’s no one else in the House GOP who could do any better than he has.

But if he has any more days like Tuesday, that idea might change fast.

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Jim Jordan’s bully pulpit

Back in September 2016, Rep. Jim Jordan was on a crusade: He wanted the House to launch impeachment proceedings against IRS Commissioner John Koskinen over allegations that the agency had targeted conservatives.

But Jordan (R-Ohio) had a problem: GOP party leaders saw impeachment as a political loser and refused to even haul Koskinen in for questioning.

Jordan wasn’t about to back down, however. He cornered then-House Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) on the House floor and presented him with a choice: Either you summon Koskinen to the Hill or the Freedom Caucus forces a vote on his impeachment a few weeks before Election Day.

Jordan got his hearing.

That is one of many instances where the Ohio Republican used hardline tactics — or what some of his colleagues would call bullying — to get his way. He was so good at it, in fact, that POLITICO dubbed him the “other speaker of the House” at the time.

Jordan once again wants something that a whole lot of his colleagues don’t want to give him. As he makes a final push for the speakership, he faces his own choice: Does he stick with his recent transformation into a team player? Or does he revert back to the tough tactics he built his reputation on?

One thing is clear: He has work to do. While Jordan won the GOP nomination for speaker yesterday, the vote was far from the display of unity that he and his allies had predicted. An eye-popping 81 Republicans rejected Jordan in favor of a low-key backbencher, Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), who decided to run just hours before the vote.

“We were shocked at the number of people who did not vote for him,” Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) told Bloomberg. “There was nowhere else to go, and they still didn't want to go there.”

The challenge Jordan is facing boils down to this: Despite becoming more aligned with leadership over the past three years, many of his colleagues still don’t trust him.

Lots of them worry he’ll embrace fiscal brinkmanship and steer the government into shutdowns. An even larger group is furious with how he treated Steve Scalise after the House majority leader won the nomination Wednesday, and they aren’t keen on seeing the second-place finisher end up with the gavel.

It should come as no surprise, though, that Jordan and his allies are ready to fight in a way that Scalise wasn’t. Their strategy is simple: Smoke out the holdouts in a public floor vote and put them in a political pressure cooker.

“What is going to happen is, they are going to vote on the floor, and then they hear from the grassroots,” Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.) told POLITICO Friday, echoing the belief in Jordan world that his opponents will cave under pressure from the GOP base.

The theory certainly has merit: On a secret-ballot revote where members were asked if they’d support Jordan on the floor, opposition dropped from 81 to 55. And of those 55, only a handful have made their opposition public — suggesting there is indeed a fear of openly breaking with Jordan.

But getting to 217 will require a scorched-earth whipping effort that goes against the entire pitch Jordan made to his colleagues in recent days — that he’s a changed man who will represent all Republicans, not just base-pleasing conservatives.

And should he move to bulldoze his opposition on the floor, that would repudiate his position earlier this week — that the nominee needed to garner 217 votes inside the conference before waging a floor fight.

(Note that Jordan isn’t alone in that particular flip-flop: Earlier this week, when Scalise was surging, ousted speaker Kevin McCarthy backed the get-217-first rule. After Jordan’s nomination yesterday, he and acting Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick McHenry told Republicans to fall in line, according to a person in the room: Jordan will be speaker. That’s a message neither man sent after Scalise was nominated.)

Despite the pressure, a group of Republicans are already privately coordinating an effort to hold firm against him. They include appropriators who don’t trust his judgment on government funding and defense hawks who don’t like that he has wavered on Pentagon budget increases.

They’re not, however, a group with a strong track record of defying their colleagues, to put it mildly. Jordan has other advantages, too: Unlike Scalise, who faced pressure to drop out after one day, he has more than three days to woo his opponents before Tuesday’s expected vote. And, frankly, many members are sick and tired of the drama, eager to pick a leader and move on.

A person familiar with Jordan’s whip effort rejected the notion that Jordan is trying to bully his way to the gavel. After securing the nomination yesterday, Jordan encouraged skeptical members to call him with their concerns, the person said, and not a single lawmaker has since told him that he won’t vote for him on the floor.

“Chairman Jordan has made it clear that he wants to unite the conference in order to pass the bills that the American people expect by giving Israel the resources they need to destroy Hamas, securing the border, and reforming FISA,” spokesperson Russell Dye said. “He is looking forward to working with the entire conference to do so when he’s speaker.”

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Why the coming weeks will test the McConnell-McCarthy relationship

As the House returns next week, the relationship between Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell could face its greatest test yet.

For the first few years of President Joe Biden's administration, the seniormost Republicans in the House and Senate were in lock step on most issues.

They tag-teamed the left’s multitrillion-dollar social spending plan. They worked together to crush plans for a bipartisan commission on the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol siege. And they railed against the president’s bungled pullout of Afghanistan. More recently, McConnell even deferred to the younger McCarthy during negotiations over the debt ceiling, backing up the new speaker every step of the way as he demanded spending cuts in return for increasing the nation’s borrowing cap.

But now, with McCarthy under pressure from conservatives, he and his Kentucky Republican counterpart could quickly find themselves at loggerheads on a government shutdown, a possible Biden impeachment and a massive debate over Ukraine funding.

The issues are already bubbling to the surface.

Upon their return next week, House Republicans under McCarthy plan to continue advancing appropriations bills well below the spending levels the speaker agreed to during bipartisan debt talks with the White House. McConnell, meanwhile, made it clear that he expects House Republicans to stand by their word and swallow larger spending numbers than they’d prefer.

This week, McConnell encouraged his members to back the White House’s request for a $40 billion supplemental spending package funding disaster relief and Ukraine aid — legislation Democrats want to attach to a temporary spending patch averting a Oct. 1 government shutdown. McCarthy, meanwhile, is looking at splitting the two apart and demanding more border funding in return for the Ukraine plus-up, which totals $24 billion.

And while McCarthy continues to flirt with the idea of impeaching Biden, McConnell — who served with Biden in the Senate for many years and has closely negotiated with him in the past — tut-tutted the idea last month.

“I said two years ago, when we had not one but two impeachments, that once we go down this path it incentivizes the other side to do the same thing,” McConnell told the New York Times reporter Carl Hulse. “Impeachment ought to be rare. This is not good for the country.”

McConnell and McCarthy have been at odds before. While McCarthy remains a top ally of former President Donald Trump and speaks to him — and, let’s be honest, fawns over him — McConnell despises the former president, privately views him as dangerous to democracy and has long had concerns about Trump dragging down Republicans lower on the ballot.

McConnell and McCarthy are also split over the recent bipartisan infrastructure and CHIPS bills. While the Kentuckian and a core group of Senate Republicans joined with Democrats to pass those big-ticket bills — and hand Biden big victories — McCarthy whipped his members against both bills, railing against their price tag and claiming (accurately, it turned out) that they would pave the way for an even pricier Democratic domestic policy bill.

The men are extremely different people — and that’s an understatement. Yes, they’re both political animals at heart, viewing each vote through the lens of whether it helps or hurts GOP prospects in the next election. But they have wildly different ways of doing that.

Where McCarthy is chatty, gabs with reporters and cheerily schmoozes with his members about their families, kids and even dogs, McConnell is reserved and at times taciturn — saying little and keeping his thoughts to himself. Even his deputies joke that being on his leadership team is like flying first class in a plane: You get to sit up front, sure, but McConnell is sealed off in the cockpit and you have no idea what he’s doing.

Their political situations are night and day. McCarthy is constantly under threat from the right, which constantly rumbles about ousting him from the speakership. McConnell’s members — most of them, anyway — are so loyal that even amid scrutiny from his recent health situation, they’re sticking behind him, full stop. Consequently, McConnell often focuses on what he likes to call the “long game,” thinking months and years ahead. McCarthy, meanwhile, tends to spend each day putting out a different fire.

The two men aren’t particularly close, but maintain a cordial relationship and meet regularly when Congress is in session. They started working closely together after Paul Ryan retired as speaker and McCarthy became GOP leader.

When Democrats impeached Trump in 2019, the two offices shared information about what was happening behind closed doors, strategized about how to poke holes in the Democrats’ case and privately bemoaned the unpredictable president making their lives miserable. When McCarthy was amid his epic battle for the speakership, McConnell lent public support, and the two have met regularly ever since to plot strategy.

Their differences might be more obvious than usual this month, but don’t expect any big public blowups between the two leaders.

For one, they still share some common ground. The two might split on Ukraine funding, for instance, but they’re both in favor of the additional fortifications at the U.S.-Mexico border that McCarthy is pushing for. And, as political tacticians, each knows how to use the dynamics in the other chamber to their own advantage.

Most importantly: Both men have made it a point not to tell the other what to do or how to run their respective chambers.

But with tensions building — and sparring already underway between the two chambers’ GOP rank-and-file — those niceties are going to be put to the test like never before.

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